Lovett Hall, Rice University

When Edgar Odell Lovett, the first president of Rice Institute (now Rice University), sought an architect to give physical shape to his recently founded institution in 1909, he searched for the best available talent in the country. In the end, he selected the Boston firm of Cram, Goodhue, and Ferguson, who were widely known and respected for their previous collegiate work at Princeton University, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and elsewhere. Ralph Adams Cram, who led the project for the firm, reports in his autobiography My Life in Architecture (1936) that they received the commission via a terse note which included the following: “We have, three miles outside of Houston, a tract of three hundred acres; it is fifty feet above sea level and fifty miles from the coast. … It is bare prairie land, with a few scrub oaks in one corner. We have a fund of 10 million dollars… We have a Board of Trustees and a President and we should like you to be our architect.”

The commission, which included development of the master plan for the campus and the design of all of the major buildings, began an association between Rice and the Cram firm that lasted for two decades, setting an environmental tone for the university which prevails even today. The campus’ architectural character, most richly embodied in Lovett Hall, has become inseparably identified with its institution, inspiring a consistent desire over three-quarters of a century to retain this character and to adhere to at least the general inclinations of the original plan.

Cram’s successful vision for Rice did not come, however, without some significant soul-searching. Cram was academically inclined and an intellectual. He was dedicated to a revival of the medieval cultural sphere, which he judged to represent a superior social ideal. This philosophy was reflected literally in his firm’s work at Princeton and West Point and in their numerous ecclesiastical projects in which they had evolved a cohesive contemporary expression of Gothic forms. When Cram’s work was not Gothic, as at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, it tended to be similarly academic in whatever “style” seemed appropriate.

In Houston, however, Cram’s autobiography notes that they were faced with “a level and stupid site – no historic or stylistic precedent (not even that of Old Mexico of which Texas had once been a part); no ideas imposed by President or Trustees… On abstract principles, we were convinced that our own type of transmuted Gothic was the right thing; but in this particular case it was manifestly out of place, and for a dozen different reasons – as were all other styles…. Manifestly the only thing to do was to invent something approaching a new style.”

To accomplish this, Cram drew on his extraordinary knowledge of the history of architecture across the globe. He sought an expression that would be “Southern in its spirit,” one that would “look like a college, and one built in a warm climate.” Like Cass Gilbert, working in Austin at the same time, he was drawn to Mediterranean sources for inspiration, but for Cram the sources were far more diverse and their combination more complex and eclectic.

Cram reports drawing on the architecture of Southern France, Italy, Dalmatia, the Peloponnesus, Byzantium, Anatolia, Syria, Sicily, and Spain with a “covert glance at the Moorish art of North Africa.” In the exuberance of his combinations he is almost the equal of his Victorian predecessors in the state, Nicolas Clayton and James Riely Gordon. The tall arches, attenuated columns, striping and patterning in brick and stone, and overall Moorish feeling of Lovett Hall, in fact, give it a remarkable resemblance to Clayton’s “Old Red” in nearby Galveston. Whatever its sources at home or abroad, the final design for the campus and for Lovett Hall, its first building, was judged by President Lovett on its unveiling in 1909 to have “successfully imparted a distinctive quality which marks it as… American of the Southwest” (Houston Daily Post, December 5, 1909).

Lovett Hall, the university’s administration building, is an unflinching anchor and focus for the Rice campus. Its grand sallyport marks a point of arrival and an introduction to the serene academic quadrangle which is the heart of the university. Its relatively more solid and severe east façade makes a strong, even monumental, gesture to the public, while the west façade, facing the quadrangle, is more delicate and penetrable, graced by a deep loggia on the ground floor. The building’s plan, with library and faculty chamber flanking either side of the president’s office in a strong central tower, is orderly and even “modern” in its match with the building’s rigorous structural module.

But Lovett Hall’s real glory is in its surface treatment – its rich combinations of rose-hued brick, exotically patterned marbles, warm colored tiles, and Texas pink granite. The building is rife with inventive detail from the brickwork’s striking elaboration on Flemish bond with shiner courses and fat mortar joints to column capitals adorned with bug-eyed Rice owls. In its major interior surfaces as well as outside, Lovett Hall merits close inspection and delights with its grace, its finesse, its erudition, and its warmth.